The Yale Law School Dean Who Presided Over the 'Trap House' Scandal Is Now Under Consideration To Be the University’s Next President

Sources say Heather Gerken, who has weathered free speech and anti-Semitism scandals as dean of Yale Law School, is in the running to succeed Peter Salovey

Heather Gerken (Twitter/Heather Gerken)
January 18, 2024

The dean of Yale Law School, Heather Gerken, who has been battered by numerous free speech and anti-Semitism scandals since assuming the post in 2018, is under consideration to be the next president of Yale University, according to five people familiar with the matter.

Gerken made headlines in 2021 when law school administrators threatened a second-year student for using the term "trap house" in an email, suggesting he would face professional consequences if he refused to issue a public apology they drafted on his behalf. The blowback was so intense that Gerken, the law school’s first female dean, was reportedly in danger of losing her job.

Gerken is nonetheless on the radar of Yale’s presidential search committee, which was formed over the summer after Yale president Peter Salovey announced his plans to step down later this year. It is not clear how many other candidates are under consideration or where Gerken ranks, but one law student described her as a "frontrunner," citing conversations with faculty members close to the process. Sources said Yale’s dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Tamar Szabó Gendler, is also under consideration.

Neither Gerken nor the search committee responded to requests for comment.

Gerken’s ascension to the presidency would mark the elevation of a controversial campus leader whose administration has targeted conservative students and worked to integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion programs into every facet of the law school. In 2021, for example, the law school retained Ericka Hart—a diversity trainer who has argued that the FBI intentionally inflates the number of anti-Semitic hate crimes—to conduct a mandatory "antiracism workshop" for incoming first-year students. It also pressed faculty to "embed anti-racist materials into their courses," according to a 2021 report on the law school’s diversity efforts, and required all senior staff to "receive anti-racist training."

These initiatives coincided with a series of dramas in which Gerken was personally involved. During the "trap house" affair, Gerken authorized a school-wide message condemning the student, Trent Colbert, who had used the allegedly offensive term in an email. "An invitation was recently circulated containing pejorative and racist language," the message read. "We condemn this in the strongest possible terms" and "are working on addressing this."

Two of Gerken’s deputies, associate dean Ellen Cosgrove and diversity director Yaseen Eldik, also hauled Colbert in for a meeting where they said his membership in the conservative Federalist Society had "triggered" his peers. They then held a separate meeting with the group’s chapter president, Zach Austin, whom they accused of orchestrating the "traphouse" email and from whom they demanded a public apology, along the same lines as the one they drafted for Colbert. Austin, who was not involved in drafting or sending the email, refused.

A year later, hundreds of Yale Law School students shouted down a conservative speaker, Kristen Waggoner, in violation of the law school’s free speech policies. Gerken imposed no consequences on those students, eliciting a rebuke from one of her colleagues, Kate Stith, who warned that Gerken was setting a "terrible precedent."

And last year, in the wake of Hamas’s terrorist rampage in Israel, Gerken rebuffed Jewish students who urged her to take a more forceful stance against anti-Semitism. Instead, she had her secretary refer them to counseling services.

"I understand these are deeply challenging times," Gerken’s chief of staff, Debra Kroszner, wrote in one email. She was responding to a Jewish student who had been personally targeted on a large listserv where some students were endorsing terrorism and blaming Israel for Hamas’s actions.

Gerken has also clashed publicly with Amy Chua—one of the law school’s most famous and outspoken professors—who has cultivated relationships with conservative judges and for years recommended students to clerkships with them.

Those judges include former D.C. Circuit judge Brett Kavanaugh, whose nomination to the Supreme Court in 2018 became a flashpoint on the Yale Law School campus, where Kavanaugh graduated in 1990. Chua vouched for Kavanaugh as a "mentor to women."

In a bizarre twist, Gerken stripped Chua of a teaching post in 2021 after the so-called tiger mom was accused of hosting students for dinner during the pandemic. Then she pressured two students to provide false testimony against Chua, according to a lawsuit filed that year, and retaliated against them when they refused. The students eventually settled for an undisclosed sum.

The scandals drew attention to the law school’s atmosphere of intolerance for conservative views and culminated with the decision by more than a dozen federal judges, led by James Ho on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, to stop hiring clerks from Yale Law School.

"Yale presents itself as the best, most elite institution of legal education," Ho said at the time. "Yet it’s the worst when it comes to legal cancellation."

The drama hasn’t stopped Gerken, who never apologized to Colbert, from mounting a quiet presidential bid. A person who teaches at Yale Law School described a phone call with an alumnus who said he was campaigning on Gerken’s behalf and looking for professors to put in a good word with members of the Yale Corporation, the university’s governing body, which will ultimately select Salovey’s successor.

Two other faculty members said that Gerken is in the running, based on second hand knowledge of the search process, and the student who described her as a "frontrunner" said that her relationships with wealthy alumni, including chairman of the Alibaba Group Joseph Tsai and Blackstone chief financial officer Michael Chae, are helping her cause.

"The donors are part of why the school is taking her seriously," the student said, given that fundraising is integral to the duties of a university president.

News of Gerken’s candidacy comes as the search process for university leaders—typically an opaque and low-profile affair—has become the subject of intense scrutiny following the downfall of two Ivy League presidents, Harvard University’s Claudine Gay and the University of Pennsylvania’s Liz Magill, who lost their jobs thanks in part to their mishandling of campus anti-Semitism after Oct. 7.

Their resignations have raised questions about the moral integrity of elite schools and about how their leaders are vetted. That scrutiny has now turned to the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives commonplace on college campuses, of which Gay in particular was a champion—and which some Jewish leaders say have fueled anti-Semitism by categorizing Jews as white oppressors.

Abe Foxman, the former head of the Anti-Defamation League, said in December that DEI "cannot be fixed." David Harris, the former CEO of the American Jewish Committee, said DEI was a "major challenge" to American liberalism.

The shifting winds could create a stumbling block for Gerken, who, like Gay, has made DEI a top priority. In July 2020, two months after the death of George Floyd, she sent out a school-wide email with the subject line, "Yale Law School’s Commitment to Anti-Racism."

"We recognize that our colleagues of color, particularly our Black colleagues, have long done more than their share of the unrecognized work of citizenship in combating racism and racial oppression," Gerken wrote to the school.

The email announced the creation of new centers on "health equity" and "environmental justice"; pledged to appoint a diversity specialist to every office in the law school; committed to bringing a million books to prisons across the country and creating "opportunities for incarcerated people to interact with authors and the literary community"; said that a course on critical race theory would be offered every year; and promised to "diversify the iconography of the Law School through portraits, photographs, and art"—even though Gerken has refused to display a painting of Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, one of the law school’s most famous black alumni, since its donation to Yale in 2019. (A portrait of Justice Sonia Sotomayor adorns the law school’s largest classroom.)

The email, which has not been previously reported, also said that students would be discouraged from calling the police.

"The Law School will train our community not to call for [Yale Police Department] assistance on campus for non-law enforcement related matters," Gerken wrote. "The Yale Police Department has agreed to work with the Law School on a plan to redirect calls from the Law School to non-police forms of assistance whenever possible."

Capping off the new initiatives was a mandatory "antiracism workshop" for incoming students in the fall of 2021 led by diversity trainer Hart, a self-described "kinky, poly … queer black femme" who argues that "objectivity" is an example of "white supremacy."

The law school scrubbed the workshop from its website, according to a source familiar with the situation, after Hart—in a separate training for the Yale Law Journal—claimed the FBI deliberately exaggerates the prevalence of anti-Semitic hate crimes, prompting widespread backlash from the journal’s editors.

Gerken’s missteps have put the law school in a perpetual state of damage control. The "traphouse" affair led to an internal investigation—the results of which Gerken never disclosed publicly—as well as staff changes, with Gerken hiring a new dean of student affairs whom she said would be "focused on ensuring students learn to resolve disagreements among themselves."

The law school has also revamped its first-year orientation to focus more on free speech and less on DEI, professors said. And it made sure security was tight when Waggoner, whose remarks were disrupted by student protesters in 2022, returned to campus for a do-over the following year, barring unregistered students from the event.

The result has been a year of relative calm at the law school, post-October 7 scandals notwithstanding. But with higher education under unprecedented scrutiny, Gerken’s drama-fueled deanship could be a sticking point for her presidential bid.

"She would be the worst choice out of all the current faculty," the student who described her as a frontrunner said. "Her handling of campus politics has been abysmal."